The History of "Travelers": Recycling in American Prime Time Network Programming

Article excerpt

In order to maintain acceptably large audiences for their programming, broadcast networks have long had to negotiate the fine line between innovation and familiarity, balancing new concepts and characters against audience comfort and recognition. At times, the emphasis has leaned towards the latter. Broadcast economist Barry Litman (1990) argues that while creating an individual product niche, broadcast networks can never stray far from "those common creative elements that appeal to the vast audience needed to generate sufficient ratings" (p. 121). Whether through spinning off characters from their own hit shows, copying successful concepts from competitors, or, in the case of the recently resurrected quiz shows, dusting off program genres that were successful in the past, networks have often sacrificed originality in the hunt for popularity (Litman, 1990).

With the emergence of rival broadcast networks--Fox, UPN, and WB--a "new" form of program recycling seemed to emerge at the close of the twentieth century: Broadcast networks increasingly included programs in their prime-time schedule that had appeared on other networks. In 1996, NBC was the most watched network in the nation, and home to a string of hit series such as ER, Seinfeld, and Friends. That fall, the network included in its schedule two shows that had been failures at ABC: The Naked Truth and The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Not to be outdone, CBS added the drama JAG to its lineup as a replacement program in January of 1997. The show had lasted one season on NBC before cancellation. The series began its eighth season at CBS in the fall of 2003. Similarly, in the summer of 2001, Twentieth Century Fox Television announced it was moving Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the WB network to rival upstart UPN in what the New York Times described as "a rare case of a hit show leaving one broadcast network for another" (Rutenberg, 2001, p. C1).

Variety uses the term "retread" to describe this particular type of program (see Flint, 1996), a term derived from the automotive world, describing a used tire that has been resurfaced with new tread to give it additional life. Yet as this article demonstrates, the pejorative connotation is not wholly appropriate in its application to television. In its place, I offer the term "traveler" to signify the wholesale movement of the fundamental aspects of a first-run television series--title, concept, characters, and cast--from one network to another, where it continues to deliver original episodes. Any program that moves from one network to another has undertaken a journey, which may have been initiated for many different reasons, and with many different results. For some "travelers," the journey is forced upon the program by cancellation. In many instances, the network that picks up the traveler hopes that it is what we might call a "sleeper," a program that will bloom successfully once it arrives at its new destination. Such was the case with JAG at CBS. In other situations, the movement from network to network is initiated by the program's producers, hoping for an improved economic outcome at a new network, as in the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In either instance, the pejorative connotation of "retread" is unsuitable.

It is important to understand "travelers" because of the significant (though unheralded) role they have played in network television programming. Travelers have been among the strongest performing television shows in history. Witness the popularity and longevity of shows like Walt Disney (34 seasons on three networks) and The Red Skelton Show (20 seasons on two networks). And while other forms of program recycling such as "spin-offs" have garnered both industry and scholarly attention, over a fifty-year period, travelers have outnumbered spin-offs by nearly three to one. Travelers have been used to build new networks, to shore up existing networks in distress, and to extend the power of networks at their peak. …